The sound of Salzburg

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The Sound of Music is the kind of film that defies both superlative and age. Starring the inimitable Julie Andrews, the movie won five Academy Awards back in 1966, and to this day, remains the third highest grosser in Hollywood. It turns 50 this year, and clearly, nobody is immune from its charm, not even Lady Gaga, whose medley of four songs from the movie stole the show at the Academy Awards this year.

Every year, over 300,000 tourists head to Salzburg, where the film was shot, just to follow its trail. Locals say they have never understood what the fuss was all about, but, they have learnt to take it in their stride, some of them even making a living out of it, with conducted tours, cute memorabilia and stage performances.

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Exactly 50 years after The Sound of Music the the silver screen, its charm remains undiminished. In honour of this anniversary, I wrote a piece for Conde Nast Traveller India. Read the rest of the story here

Tour de dessert: Swiss Bliss

Cheesy, I know. But it’s Swiss, so I’m allowed to be cheesy. And I’ll stop before it gets worse.

Lonely Planet recently had this piece on Europe’s most delicious pastries, cakes and tarts – some usual suspects like the Italian Cannoli, some surprises like voting for the Fächertorte over the Sachertorte in Austria. But overall, enough to make you want to never think of the word diet ever again (unless you are, of course, talking about a high sugar diet).

So, been there, done some of that – Cannoli in Rome, Trdelnik (and not Medovnik, since I’m not too fond of creamy fillings, what with being calorie-conscious and all that) and Sachertorte. And oh, I also went through death by dessert in Belgium.

ChampagneMost recently, in Zurich, I had an experience with little bites of heaven. Luxemburgerli in salted caramel and dark chocolate with champagne fillings at the legendary Sprüngli.

Confiserie Sprüngli, which, according to their website, has been leading people off the straight and narrow since 1836. Their window displays wink at you in the most efficiently Swiss manner and you walk in without a clue to what awaits.

Luxemburgerli

Eat nowI love how naive the Swiss are, to send you off with a little sticker like this. Really, do they expect people to sit and stare at these devils instead of enjoying them immediately? Sprüngli also has all the chocolates and pastries you would want but I walked past them all towards the Luxembergerli. And the next day, I found their outlet at the airport and made another human being happy by introducing him to its delights. That’s me, always spreading the joy. And the calories.

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Swiss Pastry

Just in case you think Switzerland is just about sinful chocolates and homegrown versions of macaroons, pause and look at the Nusstorte, or the nut pastry from the Graubünden region. I’m glad to say the Nusstorte I had contained no cream but mmmmelted in the mouth.

Nusstorte

And one evening in Chur, Switzerland’s oldest town, this twin ice cream scoop – of almond flavoured Amaretto, and Röteli, the local cherry liqueur with hints of cinnamon, vanilla and clove.

Amaretto and Röteli

Sinful sachertorte

If god hadn’t meant for people to get fat, he wouldn’t have made such desserts…

Ladies and gentlemen, presenting… The Sacher Torte…

Read all about this delectable dessert and its interesting history here. As for me, I am going to gaze long and longingly at the photo and remember my wonderful time in Vienna last year.

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More European yummms here – Trdelnik in Prague, Belgian chocolate from Bruges, Istanbul’s tricky dondurmas.

And from Melbourne, mmmmmacaroons…

The hills are alive

In Salzburg, there are two kinds of people; those who love the movie and those who absolutely abhor it. And oh yes, there is a third type: those who make a living from it. Like the guys at Panorama Tours with whom I am all set to take a Sound of Music tour around the city and the gorgeous Austrian countryside. All this is a bit surprising considering that Austrians themselves had no idea about The Sound of Music before America and Hollywood thrust it down their throats.

The women in the bus are excited, the men slightly embarrassed, while the couple of kids from America keep fidgeting, clueless what the fuss is all about. Then the stories begin. The first is about the lady from Australia who took this tour earlier and ended up in tears while the sound track was played towards the end. It turns out she is used to watching the movie at her home it every Saturday (in the company of a bottle of the best wine) for years now and was overcome by emotion at finally seeing where the movie was actually shot. I have no such emotion but like others in the bus, I have fond memories of watching the movie as a child, and enjoying it just as much when I watch it again as an adult.

The play and then the film Sound of Music actually took a lot of liberties with the real story of Maria Von Trapp and her family. In real life, when the Von Trapps escaped the Nazi rule in Salzburg, they took a hike to the nearest train station and went to Italy. The last scenes of the film shows them getting into Switzerland, a five hour drive away; this was shot near Berchtesgaden, Germany, very close to Hitler’s Eagles Nest, so imagine the Von Trapps heading there. All this is told to me by Vincent, my tourist guide for the day, who dearly loves his mike and keeps his busload entertained through the morning.

And so he continues. Edelweiss, bless my homeland forever is not a popular Austrian folk tune (as the movie would have you believe) but was composed for Broadway by Rodgers and Hammerstein, the last project the duo worked on together before Hammerstein died. If anything, Edelweiss today is a popular Austrian beer. Young men wooing were once required to climb up the Alps to bring their love the Edelweiss flower; today they take with them a crate of chilled beer!

Through all these interesting disclosures, we are traveling through serious Sound of Music country, beginning with the Leopoldskorn Lake with the palace at the side, where scenes of the movie showing the terrace of the Captain’s home were shot. The most interesting story is however, at our next stop, at the gazebo at Hellbrunn palace. It is here that Liesl, Captain Von Trapp’s oldest daughter was on 16, going on 17, with her boyfriend, the Nazi sympathizer Rolf, a year older. The gazebo is now closed to the public, ever since, says Vincent, an 85 year-old tourist (obviously going on 17) broke her hip trying to jump from seat to seat in the manner of young Liesl.

The highlight of the tour is the drive through the Salzkammergut (Lake District) with stunning views of the Austrian countryside so well captured in the opening scenes of movie. There is a mandatory stop at Mondsee to take in the cathedral where the grand wedding scene between the Captain and Maria was shot.

On the way back to Salzburg, the sound track from the movie is played in the bus (for once, Vincent is silent) and people begin to sing along, hesitantly at first and then lustily joining in. The Sound of Music works its smooth magic, or perhaps the magic is that of the countryside but grown men in the bus begin to hum along with “these are a few of my favourite things!” And I complete this pilgrimage the next morning with a visit to the Mirabell Gardens, which I am told, also played a prominent role in the movie.

Salzburg’s other claim to fame is that of being Mozart’s birthplace. And the city does not let you forget that. There is the Mozart GeburtsHaus (where he was born), his WohnHaus (where he lived) and assorted touristy memorabilia (in less kind words, called kitsch) all the way from chocolates to pen holders and fridge magnets with his name and face on them. And of course, there are those on the main streets dressed in what they think of as Mozart costume peddling cheap tickets for classical concerts (friendly word of warning: stay away from these).

All that said, Salzburg is a city capable of charming any visitor, even without the loud signs everywhere that scream of these past glories. It is known to be one of the oldest cultural centers in what is present day Austria and is now the fourth largest city here. The Aldstadt (old state – or the city center) is known for its well-preserved Baroque architecture. The city itself was established as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.

It is today a young city, its restaurants and bars buzzing in the spring air late, late into the night. The Salzach River runs through it, the bridges over it and the lanes by the side now used as spots for locals and tourists to meet and chat and watch the world pass by. On narrow Getreidegasse, the main shopping lane in Salzburg, everything is strictly old world; even the signboard for McDonalds is a graceful arch in metal and muted colours, in keeping with the tone of the area. I spend several hours here, exploring the hundreds of shops and boutiques tucked into its narrow arched by-lanes.

One evening, I trek up to the HohenSalzburg fortress that casts a watchful eye on the city at all times. The sun is setting in the distance casting golden shadows on the Salzach and the city skyline is impressive and mellow in this light. Far down, at Kapitelplatz, I can see people, little ants slowly making their way through the street stalls. The giant chessboard painted on the ground is also active, the giant pieces seeming to move of their own accord.

That instant, I can hear echoes of the sound of music from far far away.

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Published in the South China Morning Post, March 11, 2012

The non skiers go to a ski village

One of my travel dreams is for a ski holiday sometime, somewhere – preferably in the Alps. I did manage to go to a ski resort in Austria on my Europe holiday this April. Not to ski – given that neither my husband nor I know even the basics of skiing. Actually, we didn’t even go there with the intention of seeing the ski slopes.

This is how it happened. I had read about Alpbach – that it had won prettiest village in Austria awards many times. So, there was no way I was missing it. We had hired a car in Vienna and driven down to Salzburg. One morning, we took to Alpbach, hoping to head on to Innsbruck from there. As it happened, Alpbach was so charming that Innsbruck was soon forgotten.

I would have loved to visit Alpbach in summer when the flowers are in full bloom (as pictures on the Internet told me) but winter in the village had its own charm. We walked up and down the only main road, popping into the beautiful church with its stunning stained glass windows and the small cemetery at the back and looking longingly at stylish boots in shop windows. And after that stroll, we had a quick pizza lunch and headed to the hill just outside the village. We took the ski lift up to the top and stayed there for an hour, sipping on mulled wine and coffee and barely managing to stay out of the way of serious skiers. Not to mention, freezing our butts off.

Some day, some day soon, I will learn to ski. You fabulous Austrian Alps, wait for me!

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